Tracking the Bikol Express



(This is the second in a series of essays on the trains in Bikol, an interest triggered by this news that in the first quarter of 2022, the reconstruction of the Philippine National Railways will commence. It is said the line will stretch from Calamba in Laguna to Daraga in Albay, and later, at the second phase to Sorsogon)


By the time the train fondly remembered as “Bicol Express” has stopped plying the route between Manila and Kabikolan, the term has become more popular as the name for a delicacy. Made of pork with sinful slices of fat in them and sautéed with chili pepper, or cooked with an abundance of pepper treated as veggies, and added with freshwater shrimp or anything that will coax a strong flavor from the dish, the label is an exonym - a term given by an outsider to thing or event in a culture. For all protestations of the nativist, the branding “Bikol express,” has won over the gulay na balaw and sili, a strong case once more of the observer/stranger imposing his perspective on the insider/culture bearer.


If we go back to the histories of the train coming to and leaving the region, it is worth noting how a railway system that came late to this place compared to the others had made our place unique. Long before our towns and cities began to see railroad tracks being laid down and stations rising to mark distances and destinations, there was already a major train network that travelled between Manila and the north, reaching as far as Dagupan.


In the film, Heneral Luna by Jerrold Tarog, there is a train scene where the revolutionary talks about his lack of English knowledge, a nod to the fact that the Ferrocarril de Manila à Dagupan, had its company based in London, until the American company took over.


For weeks already till last week, when I completed the second part of this series, I was puzzled by the mention of the second Bicol Express, which opened in 1938 in the region. Was there a first Bicol Express? If so, where did it go?


Apparently, there was indeed a first railway line that was dubbed “Bicol Express.” It travelled from Manila and stopped somewhere in Guinyangan Quezon until 1919.


There are many more stories in the country indicating how the trains were always part of the lives of other Filipinos, not just Bikolanos.


Online we can find cases involving people against the train dating as far back as the 1900. There is one particular case involving a Manila Railroad Company employee in 1918. The accident involving him was a freak one: with a pass, he would take the train that passed by San Mateo in Rizal and in one of these trips, he fell off the platform as he alighted from the train. The culprit was a sack of watermelon, which caused him to fall and be pulled under the train, his hand later amputated to save his life.


From that case, we learned so much. For example, his wage was P25 per month, which must have been a common amount then. The case also explains that this man stood from his seat in the second-class coach of the train, which means there was a first-class. The surprising fact for us who remember the railroad tracks as coming from Tutuban and running south to Paco and out of Manila was the information that trains passed by San Mateo in Rizal.


Online, I came across a sketchy information about the railroad extension to Antipolo, Rizal. Along this route, a station in Taytay was opened on February 2, 1906 to serve as the temporary terminus for the railroad. The line was called Rail Motor services.


The case of the accident involving a man and watermelons at least confirms the existence of a train line along Rizal province.


In a website named “Philippines, My Philippines,” there is another amazing trove of information about railmotors, which are English terms referring to a railway lightweight railcar.


According to this website, there was the Cavite Line which “stretched from Manila through Paco, Parañaque, Bacoor, Noveleta until Naic in Cavite Province for a total of 44 km.” Then there was Marikina Line, which “started from Rosario (presently in Pasig and along an area still called Tramo” to Montalban via Marikina (where there is still a Daang Bakal) and San Mateo for a total of 31 km.” Finally, there was the Antipolo Line, which “started from Manila and passed through Sta. Mesa, Pasig (likely somewhere what is presently Bagong Ilog), Rosario, Taytay, through present-day Cainta) and until Antipolo (near Hinulugang Taktak where there is still a Daang Bakal). Completed in 1908, the line was abandoned in 1917.”


It appears the Bicol Express was just one of the many extensions of the railway systems then in pre-war Philippines.


But then came a film that firmed up in popular culture the power of train as a wellspring of lore and legends. Made in 1957, the film carried the title, Bicol Express. It was directed by seven filmmakers, which include Efren Reyes, the action star of the 50s, Abraham Cruz, Gerardo de Leon, who would become the National Artist for Film, Eddie Romero, another National Artist for Film, Cirio Santiago, Teodorico Santos, and Josefino Cenizal, the composer of the famous love song, Hindi kita Malimot.


A young actor is believed to have begun his career in Bicol Express. He was Fernando Poe, Jr, who played a villain in the film. It has been written also that Poe also was the villain in that same year in another film, Kamay ni Cain, starring Zaldy Zshornack, a Bikolano whose real name was Jose Rizaldy Taduran Zshornack, who traced his roots to then the town of Iriga.